Road to Excellence: Why Southwest’s customer experience strategy keeps the brand strong in the US

Southwest Airlines is the largest low-cost carrier in the world. It owes much of its success to its customer-focussed co-founder Herb Kelleher, who has grown the brand from humble beginnings in the late 1960s to one which now employs 46,000 workers across 3,400 flights a day. Sitting at an excellent 10th place in the United States’ CEE rankings, Southwest’s robust customer experience strategy has kept the brand flying high, and raised the bar for other CEM companies around the globe.

Southwest Airlines’ Six Pillar scores vs. industry average

  • Personalisation: +12%
  • Time and Effort: +9%
  • Expectations: +12%
  • Integrity: +12%
  • Resolution: +12%
  • Empathy: 11%

Herb Kelleher tells his employees that they are in the service business, and it’s incidental that they fly planes. As the Southwest website states: “Customer Service is #1 for us… From booking your trip to the moment you deplane, it’s our mission to make your travel experience a great one… Low fares don’t mean low service.”

The company’s primary focus is people, namely those that it recruits, and Southwest’s main concern is that they are hired on the strength of their overall attitudes, rather than any skills they might possess. For example, the airline’s recruitment process is more heavily-biased towards finding candidates who will exude warmth, friendliness, individual pride and company spirit.

But according to Kelleher, none of these qualities can be adequately expressed unless the staff member feels sufficiently content and motivated. “If the employees come first, then they’re happy,” he explains. “A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders.” It is important, therefore, for staff to have a meaningful purpose in the Southwest family, something which the current CEO, Gary Kelly, is keen to reinforce. He gives weekly shout-outs to those employees who have demonstrated customer experience best practice, and his internal videos highlight the very best examples of empathetic engagement. In addition, Southwest Airlines makes a promise to them: “Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organisation that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.”

These sentiments all form an important part of the airline’s customer experience strategy. In return for being well looked-after, employees are encouraged to show passengers ‘a warrior spirit’ and ‘a servant’s heart’, adopting ‘a fun-luving’ attitude, whilst not taking themselves too seriously. As a result, staff members are expected to be ‘fearless’ in delivering what is needed for each individual customer, and they are instructed to put other people’s needs before their own.

In this respect, Herb Kelleher sets a sterling example; he has been known to arrive at three o’clock in the morning to help clean out planes, and often assists with baggage unloading so that aircraft can leave the tarmac on time. He lives out his customer experience visions for the benefit of his passengers, whilst also motivating his employees.

And whilst this hard work is essential for helping customers to feel cared about, it also pays dividends in the pillar of Time and Effort. As one passenger explained: “I was late for a connection in Denver. So, I stepped off the plane, thinking I was going to need to wait in an endless line and plead my case for a rebooking, but immediately, I was met by a gate agent from Southwest and she handed me a ticket with my name on it – for the next available flight.”

So when CEO Gary Kelly says, “Our people are our single greatest strength and most enduring long term competitive advantage,” he really means it. Southwest’s employees are integral to the airline’s customer experience strategy and are supported by a management team whose gaze is fixed firmly on their needs, and the needs of the passengers in turn. There is clearly a lot of fight left in this ‘fun-luving’, warrior-spirited brand.

For more customer experience insight visit the KPMG Nunwood CEM blog.